Maintaining that 9 out of 10 ADA lawsuits are “frivolous and unjustified,” Bijal Patel emphasized that the California Hotel & Lodging Association (CHLA) has “doubled down” in its effort to fight such cases by funding a program of legal assistance to its members.
Patel—who has been Chairman of the CHLA since 2019—described these nuisance lawsuits as having had a “detrimental impact on our industry.” He noted there have been roughly 120 cases involving CHLA members in the two-plus years since the program was started.
Serial drive-by or call-in lawsuits against hotels have increased substantially in recent years. While years ago pool lifts seemed to be the focus many now are based on website compliance and/or hearing impairments with potential plaintiffs often not having to leave their office as a result of online tools like Google Earth.
However, according to Patel, after essentially “losing a year” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the $250,000 program has started gain momentum. He noted that many ADA (American with Disabilities Act) lawsuits have been dismissed and many others have been settled at greatly reduced dollar amounts.
He touted the creation of the program, which was started at the recommendation of the association’s executive committee.
“There wasn’t a legal mechanism to really move this forward so we asked ‘how can we defeat these’? The only way to really stop the ‘cash grab’ is if you actually call their bluff and provide a path for litigation. A lot of these drive-by lawsuits rely on the fact that you’re not going to spend $10,000 to $15,000 to get that support. They’re going to settle for $3,000 and move on and that’s how these litigants get momentum. We asked, ‘how do we provide a path for our membership to actually fight these and how do we incentivize them to fight these?’” he said, adding “no association or trade organization was really leading the charge.”
As part of the most recent funding to “help encourage members” to fight back any member who needs help with an ADA lawsuit that is underserved can benefit from the CHLA for a flat legal fee of $2,000.
Patel emphasized the impact of a more cohesive strategy and extolled the benefit of some “120 cases worth of data.” The association hired Stillman & Associates to handle the lawsuits.
“When you harness the power and information of all those cases and you have one attorney working on all of them you have an opportunity to affect more change,” he said.
Patel pointed out that the association has begun to work with a number of hotel brands that have been targets of these “serial litigators.” He further described these litigants and how the program has discouraged such activity.
“Their primary vehicle is ‘here’s the threat of a lawsuit or settle with us for ‘x’ amount of dollars.’ When you actually go and say ‘we have counsel, we’re going to take you to court and fight this’ they suddenly have to do a lot more work. We want to push them so that this isn’t an easy cash grab. When I talk to hoteliers that get sued a lot of times they’re frustrated and their hands are tied. We don’t want to force our members to settle; it’s not in anybody’s interest for that to happen,” he said.
Patel described the program for the CHLA—which is the largest state hospitality group in the U.S. with a membership operating nearly a quarter of a million rooms—as a “tremendous success.”
While the members are still seeing some activity in terms of suits, Patel is encouraged by signs of progress.
“I feel like the pace has definitely started to slow down a little bit. Some of the serial litigants that we have started to go up against have now actually started to target other industries. So they’re not coming for the hotels. I think it’s because they know hotels are done bending over backwards on these issues and they’re they’re going to fight back and they have mechanisms for fighting back,” he said.